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Baklava took a break in Turkey's pastry capital after the earthquake. Now it's back

Employees box up baklava for customers at Imam Cagdas in Gaziantep, Turkey.
Claire Harbage
/
NPR
Employees box up baklava for customers at Imam Cagdas in Gaziantep, Turkey.

GAZIANTEP, Turkey — The baklava barons of Gaziantep are renowned purveyors of the sticky sweet pistachio-packed pastry their city is known for.

But when the earth shook, this family-run establishment stopped baking it for the first time since they started serving it about 90 years ago.

It was the middle of the night on Feb. 6 when a 7.8 magnitude earthquake rocked the region, decimating buildings and killing more than 45,000 people in Turkey and Syria while they were sleeping in their beds.

Imam Cagdas, the kebab and baklava restaurant that the Cagdas family has run for five generations, fortunately remained standing, but the owners escaped their homes to sleep in their cars, and some employees had become homeless.

A tent outside the restaurant serves free food to people who need a meal.
Claire Harbage / NPR
/
NPR
A tent outside the restaurant serves free food to people who need a meal.

The tap water in Gaziantep ran dirty for days, the natural gas supply was interrupted, power lines blew out and tent camps had sprung up around the city for those who had lost or managed to escape their homes.

So the restaurant transformed itself into a charity kitchen, cooking whatever leftover meat they had, preparing soup and feeding thousands of people a day for free.

They delivered children's medicines to the displaced, and more than 200 people — employees and their families — slept on the restaurant floor.

Baklava became a luxury, not a need

At Imam Cagdas, people bag up halva to donate to residents who are living in tents in Gaziantep.
Claire Harbage / NPR
/
NPR
At Imam Cagdas, people bag up halva to donate to residents who are living in tents in Gaziantep.

They halted baklava production.

Baklava became "more of a luxury than a need," says Burhan Cagdas, 24, who is in the fifth generation of the Cagdas restaurant dynasty.

Then, nine days after the quake, Burhan and his brother Talat convinced his father, also named Burhan, to reopen the restaurant and make their famous pastry again.

Other baklava bakeries were reopening, and many of their customers were asking for it — during normal times, they ship their baklava across Turkey, supplying it to the trendy Turkish restaurateur known as Salt Bae, and even as far as Australia.

They wanted to send a hopeful message.

"This dessert is the symbol of this city," Cagdas says. "Things are getting better because people can work, and people can produce baklava."

Baklava heaven

One day after baklava production had resumed, 16 bakers are dressed in white, rolling dough onto a white marble table, in a bright white room with wafting clouds of starch.

It is a dreamy sight.

Pastry is rolled on a marble surface while making baklava at Imam Cagdas.
Claire Harbage / NPR
/
NPR
Pastry is rolled on a marble surface while making baklava at Imam Cagdas.
An employee moves fresh baklava onto racks in the front of the restaurant at Imam Cagdas.
Claire Harbage / NPR
/
NPR
An employee moves fresh baklava onto racks in the front of the restaurant at Imam Cagdas.

They flatten the dough till it's translucent. They lay it onto a tray and layer it with buttery ghee, made in the neighboring city of Urfa, which some traditions associate with the birthplace of the biblical patriarch Abraham.

Then they slather it with kaymak cream and homegrown emerald pistachios, blanket it in pastry dough and slice the tray into equal portions — "the hardest part," Cagdas says.

Hard to stomach

Baklava is back, but things aren't yet the same in Gaziantep, recognized as a UNESCO City of Gastronomy.

In the restaurant, sitting under a chandelier, nearly all the customers are aid workers or civil engineers inspecting damage.

Pans of baklava are on display at Imam Cagdas.
Claire Harbage / NPR
/
NPR
Pans of baklava are on display at Imam Cagdas.

At one table sit two Turkish car repair shop owners in their 30s who flew in from Istanbul to volunteer with rescue efforts and hadn't showered in a week.

"My friend here maybe carried over 20 bodies out of the rubble," says Erkan Senel, 35.

They finally took a break to come to this famous restaurant for a bite, but couldn't stomach it.

"I can't tell you how hard it is to try to eat something after what we've seen in the earthquake zones. We know the earthquake victims, fellow citizens, are in such pain," Senel says. "We ordered this baklava. I just took a bite and I stopped."

He could go on forever praising the baklava at Imam Cagdas, he says — but he just didn't feel like it was the right time to do it.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

A server opens the door for customers at Imam Cagdas.
Claire Harbage / NPR
/
NPR
A server opens the door for customers at Imam Cagdas.

Daniel Estrin is NPR's international correspondent in Jerusalem.
Claire Harbage
Gamze Yilmazel